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Set Up for Success

By AICC Staff

September 12, 2019

Just over 200 years ago, the first cardboard box was born. By all accounts, it was an early version of what we know today as a rigid or setup box. The box appeared in 1817, the packaging for a German board game, and it arrived nearly 40 years before the invention of corrugated and almost 60 years before a misaligned bag-cutting machine in Brooklyn inspired the folding carton.

Although rigid boxes have shifted over time from first to niche, they remain an important segment of the market. They continue to be used for packaging games and puzzles. But they are perhaps best known as the “celebration” box, the popular choice for jewelry, candy, and other gifts, as well as higher-end products seeking to stand out in the marketplace.

Chipboard Challenges

Rigid boxes are often discussed alongside folding cartons, but the two styles have little in common. Rigid boxes are usually made of chipboard, while folding cartons may be made from a variety of substrates. Because the chipboard is thicker than folding carton substrate (.040–.080 inches, compared to folding carton stock, which is usually in the .01–.036-inch range) rigid boxes are known for their strength and durability.

Chipboard makes sense because all finishing is done to a separate wrap applied to a plain box. However, that brings challenges as well as benefits.

Says Steve Keyser, president of Utah Paperbox, “We’re five times the size in folding carton than we are in rigid. And the thing is, rigid is a lot more complicated to manufacture. There are a lot of different board thicknesses and the need to run different tolerances. There are a lot of ways to mess up a rigid box.”

“One of the most significant challenges of manufacturing rigid boxes is the registration of the graphics to the box structure,” says Keith Thomas, director of strategic initiatives and business development at the Michigan City Paper Box Co., which is devoted nearly 100% to rigid box. “When manufacturing folding cartons, laminated corrugated, and direct-print corrugated, graphics are applied to cartons while the substrate is still flat. One of the reasons why rigid boxes are also referred to as setup boxes is that the base substrate is set up into a three-​dimensional structure prior to receiving the graphics that are glued to—and wrapped around the edges of—a rigid chipboard shell. This creates registration concerns at all corners, all edges, and between base and lid crossovers as well.

“The ‘spotting’ of the chipboard shell to the printed graphics was previously carried out by some of the most patient and steady-handed folks on earth, as they placed the chipboard boxes between mitered corners of the flat wrap lying on a glue belt. Since the early ’90s, this process has been automated. In fact, at Michigan City Paper Box, we have 34 robotic spotters for our wrapping machines, with a majority of them using high-precision cameras to spot the box precisely between all four mitered corners of the glued wrap.”

“There is a learning curve when it comes to rigid box,” acknowledges Jim Haglund, Chair and owner of Central Package & Display, whose rigid box division accounts for about 10% of the company’s business. “There are lots of different paper coatings and glues and adhesives. Quality is also an issue. You’re laminating so much of the time—laminating a sheet into a box—and your corners [need to be] perfectly square, folding just right inside the top and bottom covers.

“Customers are very particular,” he continues. “With corrugated, some people often don’t even see the box. With our products, and in this setup arena, corporate presidents are inspecting our boxes. If you have a little fisheye or a little wrinkle, they’ll reject them. It’s a different market. We have to do 100% inspection.”

Worldly Competition

In addition to managing a unique range of manufacturing details, rigid boxmakers have been especially vulnerable to overseas competition—particularly from Asia, where cheaper labor costs have enabled boxmakers to achieve superlative quality thanks to a high level of skilled handwork. The cutting-edge quality featured in the China-made Apple iPhone box, for example, has not gone unnoticed by U.S. boxmakers. “The Apple boxes have had a huge impact on the industry,” notes Keyser.

Thomas says, “The iPhone box—and its many related cousins now—is a good example of how a well-executed, basic two-piece box can serve as an artistically crafted package that is exceptionally functional and green at the same time. After all, is there another empty box that is retained as often as an iPhone box?”

John Ray, president of Ray Products, whose product line is 90% rigid box, says, “Asia came on the scene in a big way as a competitor. I thought that was good in some ways. It brought the setup box back to the forefront in people’s minds when they think about premium packaging. Look at the iPhone, the iPad. The more people see a premium product in a setup box, that’s good for everyone.”

In fact, Thomas believes that it is largely due to what he calls the “iPhone packaging revolution” that he expects demand for rigid box packaging to be on an upswing for the next five to 10 years. “While the construction and tolerances of rigid boxes have become much tighter as a result of the iPhone package engineering, the overall industry has received a much-needed puff of air,” he says. “The future looks bright.”

Keyser agrees, despite the quality of the Asian product. “Even though we do a lot of handwork, we cannot run an Apple-quality box,” he says. “But due to the Asia tariffs, I think we’re seeing some interest from companies that didn’t used to be interested in us.”

For Haglund, whose rigid box division specializes in small runs of custom boxes for customers willing to spend $50, or even up to $75, for a single box, the competition is not Asia or even other boxmakers. “Our real competition is the customer’s price point and our ability to meet that while also delivering a high-quality product.”

Marketplace Changes

Keyser is seeing increasing demand for short runs and quick turnaround, requests that no overseas supplier can fulfill. “It seems like we have someone come in almost every day who’s starting a business and wanting a small run of boxes. We put in a Fuji digital press so we can do runs of 500 boxes. That’s been good for our business.”

In addition, he says, “A lot of people make rigid boxes and then just buy out the print. We’re one of the only rigid shops that also controls print. We do the print, the foil stamping, the whole bit. And recently the exciting thing here has been cold foil on rigid wraps. A lot of our competitors don’t offer it.”

The rigid box segment has not felt the impact of e-commerce in the way that corrugated has. Yet new markets continue to arise, expanding customers’ reliance on rigid boxes.

“Traditionally, you’ll see setup boxes used for cosmetics, smartphones, media packaging,” says Ray. “Jewelry boxes are a big part of our industry, too. If you’re looking at what’s new today, though, I have to say the cannabis industry is big. We haven’t done that much of it yet, but there’s a call for higher-end packaging for various cannabis products.”

Central Package & Display has also seen the impact of the growing cannabis industry. “We don’t have legalized marijuana here in Minnesota,” says Myron Schmitz, business development manager for the rigid box division, “but we see this type of packaging being very popular in California and Colorado. We run boxes for them and ship to them.”


Rigid boxes continue to fill a valuable niche for boxmakers and customers alike. Even so, “there are a lot of questions when it comes to the future,” says Ray. “Who knows where the economy is headed over the next four to five years?”

Says Keyser, “Rigid box makes up about 15%–20% of our business, and our main focus is confectionery. We’re growing a little this year, but it’s not leaps and bounds. The biggest threat—especially given our niche in confectionery—is the pouches that candy comes in these days. I don’t know how sustainable that packaging is compared with rigid box, so I don’t know if we’ll see fewer pouches going forward. But we have seen them take away some rigid business in places.”

Thomas believes that “as import prices continue to rise due to labor, freight, and tariffs, our design houses and marketing departments will begin to forgo the addition of magnets, ribbons, etc. into their package designs,” which typically require a lot of costly handwork and often lead to manufacturing shifting to an off-shore alternative. “For the future,” he says, “I see customers moving more of their packaging back to the U.S. and utilizing boxes that can be automated within our capable and well-equipped domestic factories.”

“[Rigid box] is a nice niche to be in,” Keyser says. “It helps you stay deep with your customers. If rigid is what they’re looking for, you’re able to sell it.”

Ray Packaging has been selling rigid boxes since the company began. “This company started out manufacturing stationery boxes for Hallmark,” Ray says. “It was my grandpa’s decision to make setup boxes. We’ve stuck with it. It goes to show the longevity of the setup box.”

It’s a legacy he continues to honor. “The demand for setup boxes is still very strong. In terms of our product’s presence in the marketplace—its recyclability, its sense of value as a presentation piece—I don’t see anything poised to take its place.”

width=109Robert Bittner is a Michigan-based freelance journalist and a frequent BoxScore contributor.